I was in a middle-school science class in Santa Barbara California, when I leaned over to my lab partner Ben and asked him, “What are you, anyway? What race, I mean?” He clearly wasn't white, like me. His skin was a toasty colour, his hair was dark and curly and his eyes were a deep limpid brown.
Ben said, "I'm Jewish."
Light bulb moment. He looked exactly like a smaller version of my father.
That night I cornered Dad in his study and asked him point-blank if he was Jewish. He nodded and asked me how my algebra was going. The subject of Jewishness was obviously not for discussion.
The next day Ben told me Jewishness was passed down through the mother. I was off the hook! Mom’s ancestors were Scandinavian and her bloodline was pure Viking.
I cornered Dad again and told him what my friend Ben had said. My father looked me in the eye and said, "That may be but never forget you're Jewish enough for Hitler."
Those words went through me like a knife. But how? But why?
It wasn't until I was an adult that I fully learned my father’s story. He was a Jewish refugee, the illegitimate son of a Hungarian-Jewish film director and an Austrian-Jewish mother. His early family life was chaotic and, just like me, he didn’t know he was a Jew until he was twelve. The irony of two generations of denial didn’t escape me. It was sad. It was also wrong to be so divorced from, and ignorant of, my roots. Slowly, over time, I began to re-claim my heritage. The onus was on me.
I truly believe that we can’t know who we are, unless we know who we were. Shalom.